Checking In On… the Sun Belt ConferencePosted by dnspewak on December 16th, 2011
The Week That Was
- Middle Tennessee continues to roll. Despite a slip-up at UAB, the Blue Raiders got revenge on Belmont with a narrow three-point victory, offsetting a double-overtime loss earlier in the season to the Bruins. Behind a spirited home crowd at the Murphy Center, MTSU’s physicality and strength eventually wore down Belmont, who could not hold its own on the boards. With the victory, the Blue Raiders improved to 10-2, and they picked up what could prove to be the most important win of the season for coach Kermit Davis.
- Speaking of important wins, Florida Atlantic has wasted several opportunities to claim them recently. Mike Jarvis scheduled a difficult slate to test his defending Sun Belt champion squad, but so far, the Owls have fallen flat against the likes of Washington, Kansas, South Florida and Mississippi State. But don’t give up hope for an upset just yet: FAU travels to Miami and Harvard during the next week.
- A week after shocking the nation with a road win at Utah State, the Denver Pioneers dropped an overtime heartbreaker to MAAC favorites Iona. There’s no shame in losing to a team that has the talent to win 25 games this year, and the Gaels might be an at-large contender if they do not win their conference tournament. Still, in the end, it was Iona’s up-tempo style that sped up DU and forced it into 20 turnovers. The Pioneers actually held their own on the boards and shot reasonably well from beyond the arc, and had they held on to the ball, they could have picked up another quality victory in the non-conference.
- Middle Tennessee (10-2, 0-0): Kermit Davis may finally have the team his fan base has been waiting for all these years. Gone are the days that MTSU finished with a middling .500 record — these Blue Raiders look like NCAA Tournament contenders. With LaRon Dendy (14.4 PPG/6.7 RPG) leading the way, Middle Tennessee has the sort of size you might find in a power conference. Davis’s team rebounds with authority and dominates its opponents in the paint. The Blue Raiders are the best defensive team in the conference, and though they won’t wow you with perimeter shooting and an explosive offense, this team plays as hard as anybody around. Florida Atlantic has the guards we all love to talk about, but you won’t find any team with more intimidating size than MTSU.
- Florida Atlantic (4-6, 0-0): It’s not time to panic yet, but we’re finding out early in this 2011-12 campaign that FAU is human. The consensus pick to repeat as East champs, the Owls’ undersized forwards have struggled against bigger post players. What’s more concerning, though, is the way FAU’s experienced guards have struggled. In particular, Ray Taylor (8.3 PPG/5.1 APG) hasn’t quite found his groove yet, and he’s even started coming off the bench. We’re talking about one of the league’s best players here, people — playing off the bench. He scored 20 points in a loss to Mississippi State, but coach Mike Jarvis even said he can still play better. He has to, or Florida Atlantic won’t go anywhere this season.
- South Alabama (5-3, 0-0): After a losing season marred by injuries and the loss of an entire backcourt, USA is the feel-good story of the Sun Belt so far. With a modest 5-3 record, Augustine Rubit (16.3 PPG/8.6 RPG) is avoiding a sophomore slump by nearly averaging a double-double again. And as for those newcomers in the backcourt? They seem to fit just fine on a Division I basketball team as a compliment to Rubit, a Player of the Year candidate in the Sun Belt.
- Troy (4-5, 0-0): So much for the Trojans living in the Sun Belt cellar this year. Sure, it could still happen, but Troy has put up a fight during its non-conference slate. It did not fare so well in road games at Mississippi State and Belmont (lost by a combined 61 points), but it has found its share of scoring options with a cast of newcomers. Mo Weathers (12.9 PPG/6.6 RPG) is enjoying another terrific season at point guard, and a high-flying group of guards includes five players averaging double-figures in scoring. Troy even knocked off a couple of decent programs in East Tennessee State and Miami (OH) at home. That’s not cause for celebration, but considering the expectations, this young team could have done a lot worse in November and December.
- Western Kentucky (4-7, 0-0): Ken McDonald‘s program has life. The Hilltoppers seemed destined for another horrid season after losing five of their first six games, but they’ve rebounding to win a modest three of their last five. No, it’s not time to rename the court Ken McDonald Court, but it does actually seem that WKU is figuring things out on the defensive end. Losing veteran guard Caden Dickerson for the season isn’t good news, but freshman guard T.J. Price (9.8 PPG/2.8 RPG) showed a flash of scoring ability with 19 points in WKU’s most recent loss to IUPUI. Fellow freshman guard Derrick Gordon (10.5 PPG/6.2 RPG) is the leading scorer right now, but he’s still not nearly at full potential yet.
- Florida International (3-7, 0-0): Sophomores Phil Taylor (14.7 PPG/4.7 APG) and Dominique Ferguson (6.8 PPG/6.4 RPG) were considered keys to the Golden Panthers’ success this season. So far, only Taylor has emerged as a leading option as the point guard. Ferguson, on the other hand, still hasn’t lived up to his status as an NBA prospect. FIU did compete with a rebuilding Maryland team this week, but it also dropped a contest to Texas Wesleyan four days earlier. Offensively, Isiah Thomas‘s team has just seemed out of rhythm, and they aren’t rebounding the ball effectively enough either.
- Denver (7-2, 0-0): The overtime loss to Iona may be a killer when March rolls around. Again, the Gaels are one of the nation’s elite non-BCS teams, and a victory could have solidified Denver’s post-season profile. The fact that we’re even talking about a “resume” for Denver points to the fact that Joe Scott has done a terrific job with this program in its last year as a member of the Sun Belt Conference. With victories over St. Mary’s and Utah State, this looks like a team that could certainly find a spot in a post-season tournament if it does not make the NCAAs as an automatic bid. As expected, Chris Udofia (13.7 PPG/4.2 RPG) has offered a new element to this roster as an athletic forward, and the hot-handed Pioneers are using their strength — the three-point line — to wear down opponents.
- Arkansas State (5-5, 0-0): Disaster has been avoided for John Brady‘s program. After kicking off his best player in Martavius Adams, Brady’s team has now won four of five games since the end of November. Brandon Peterson (11.7 PPG/7.6 RPG) and Malcoln Kirkland (11 PPG/6.7 RPG) has stepped up their games in the post to make up for Adams, and Trey Finn (11.6 PPG/6 RPG) has taken a larger role in the offense. Now, the question is whether Ed Townsel (10.1 PPG/2.6 APG) can get the job done at point guard. The Red Wolves have grinded out victories lately in spite of Townsel’s subpar play by using tough defense and rebounding as the winning formula. If the young Townsel gets better, watch out.
- Louisiana-Lafayette (5-7, o-0): Right now, UL just needs to learn to win on the road. It has played a fairly difficult schedule, but looks like a completely different team away from the Cajundome. Star forward J.J. Thomas (10.1 PPG/6.3 RPG) has missed the last five games with an injury, as he’s still dealing with the aftermath of off-season surgery. Until he returns, Bob Marlin won’t be able to get a true read on this team. Thomas is so important to his offense, and he controls every possession with his ability to score in the post. There’s no need to worry, though, as Marlin dealt with all sorts of injuries during the first few months of last season, and when everybody returned to the court, this team took off. A similar phenomenon could happen this year.
- North Texas (4-5, 0-0): It’s almost Tony Mitchell time. The Mean Green’s contest with Jackson State on Dec. 18 marks the star forward’s first college game after missing the first semester. Without Mitchell, Johnny Jones has relied on several faces in the frontcourt to get the job done. So far, even veterans like Jacob Holmen (6.4 PPG/2.8 RPG) and Kendrick Hogans (5.9 PPG/5.2 RPG) haven’t produced a ton at forward. With Mitchell returning, that could change. Jones’ young guards have actually played very well, including freshman Chris Jones (14.6 PPG/3.4 APG), who leads the team in scoring and is still learning on the job as the point guard.
- Arkansas Little Rock (3-8, 0-0): With an injury to promising forward Gus Leeper, it’s been tough for coach Steve Shields to find consistent frontcourt play. His guard tandem of D’Andre Williams (11.2 PPG/4.2 APG) and Chuck Guy (10.6 PPG/3.4 RPG) are trying to pull their weight, but they’ve even struggled to shoot the ball from the perimeter. That’s been a problem all season for UALR, in fact. Williams and Guy are both shooting less than 23 percent from three-point land, and Will Neighbour (10.3 PPG/6 RPG/38.7% from 3) is the only Trojan forward with any ability to stroke it from the outside at all. Also, it’s been interesting to watch UALR drop so many home games since it normally dominates the competition in Little Rock. Of course, the most recent home loss was a have-to-see-to-believe kind of game against Oral Roberts … but we’ll get to that later.
- Louisiana-Monroe (1-10, 0-0): The season went south for ULM when it found out this off-season it would not be eligible for post-season play. And it’s continued a downward spiral with 10 losses in 11 games, though Keith Richard‘s team has actually competed better than its record would suggest. The knock on the Warhawks has been the lack of size, and that’s especially true now that center Steven McClellan is redshirting. But these guys actually have some speed and scoring ability in the backcourt. Former Kansas State transfer Fred Brown (13.8 PPG/2.3 APG) chucks up a lot of shots — like he did last year — but he can put the ball in the basket, as can Charles Winborne (12.4 PPG/2.5 APG), who everybody forgot about as he redshirted last season.
- Saturday, December 17 – Arkansas State at Murray State: Who knew the Racers would be a ranked opponent when ASU faced them this season? After knocking off Dayton at home and upsetting Memphis on the road, Murray State cracked the polls at #24 this week, and Steve Prohm hasn’t missed a beat with this program after Billy Kennedy left for Texas A&M. Ed Townsel draws a tough match-up with junior Isaiah Canaan, who has won a lot of games at Murray State and has now taken the reigns as the team’s point guard.
- Thursday, December 22 – Florida Atlantic at Harvard: How good is Harvard? Good enough that before it lost to Connecticut, there was some talk that the Crimson could finish the regular season undefeated. This is a team with a whole lot of depth and athleticism up and down the roster, more so than maybe any Ivy League team in recent memory. This is a prime opportunity for FAU to get back on track.
Play of the Week
If you watch SportsCenter at all, you’ve probably seen this wild finish between Oral Roberts and UALR. In a few years, maybe Trojans fans will laugh about the ordeal. Right now, though, this loss is no laughing matter. See how it went down: